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Politics of Water, Politics of Disaster: Flooding in Romania

April 21, 2006

By Paula Ganga

For many centuries, water and proximity to water have been important issues in conflicts the world over. Many wars have been fought at least partially due to the lack of this crucial factor of development. However, Eastern Europe has faced in the last few years the exact opposite situation. It seems that water is causing conflict and destruction not by its absence, but by a sheer overwhelming quantity of it that these countries cannot handle. This situation has come to the attention of the Western media only in the last week, when many important newspapers emphasized the meteorological warnings and high level of the Danube – the highest in a hundred years. Without wanting to neglect the current danger that many of the inhabitants in the Danube region face, this is not an uncommon situation. After all, this river increases its depth spectacularly every year following the melting of the mountain snows ; what makes one year’s meltdown more discussed in the national newspapers is the relative degree of preparedness on the part of the authorities. This is how water policy has become an extremely important factor in the internal affairs. Natural disasters such as flooding have thus affected the political culture and debate.

For several years now, Romania has been recurrently fighting “the most catastrophic floods since… Although we hear this every year, each new image of houses being destroyed and washed away, people clinging to rafts or old women crying at the sight of their entire life’s work drifting off downstream, we naturally become sympathetic with the plight of these unfortunate people. And we logically try to find who or what was responsible for their suffering. Usually, the culprit ends up being the government, for its inability to resolve a situation that repeats itself several times in any given year.

Usually the moment when authorities get most worried about this situation is at the beginning of spring; by the month of May, things calm down until the next year’s melt-off. The authorities then do some additional work to the existing infrastructure, but sometimes nothing more. Extensive work was promised by the Nastase government (2000-2004), and according to their statements this was achieved. The difficulties fell, however, on the shoulders of the D.A. Alliance (Dreptate si Adevar – Justice and Truth) that won the elections at the end of 2004.

After less that a half a year at the head of the country, the Popescu-Tariceanu government was faced with devastating floods in March-April 2005, in the south-western part of Romania (Banat). Later, in July and August, communication between the northeastern region of Moldova and the capital was cut, due to the destruction of the bridge connecting the two. Trains and trasportation were sometimes 9 hours late in this time.

To this was added the possibility that Bucharest itself could have been swallowed by the floods at the beginning of October. And, for an apotheotic end of the year, the areas that were flooded in March were once more flooded in December 2005. (For the detailed maps and other documents on the flows of the rivers go to the site of the Ministry of the Environment and the Administration of Waters- .PDF).

Faced with this endless flood, the new authorities started by blaming the previous government of corrupt administration of funds. In fact, when an investigation was made, it was discovered that most of the companies involved in territorial development which were hired to administrate the water utilities didn’t perform their jobs- and had also been chosen because of their connections with the government.

However, this excuse couldn’t be used indefinitely. The difficulty of the disaster situation put the minister in charge of Environment and Administration of Water, Sulfina Barbu, in a very delicate position. Due to some inappropriate declarations, she was put on the “black list’ of those who were meant to depart the government during the summer of 2005. However, despite this precarious positioning, Sulfina Barbu is still minister, and is trying to solve the current crisis.

The once-possible resignation of Sulfina Barbu was just one example that shows how natural disasters affect politics in Romania. What the floods brought was a sort of abrupt ending of the new government’s honeymoon period. From that point on (March 2005), the situation of the D.A. Alliance in the opinion polls deteriorated constantly. By May, the polls had already registered a decrease in approval from 59 to 49.9 percent, and in July, when the effects of the flooding became more visible, the government’s popularity fell again (but more slightly, to 48.7 percent), while the president’s popularity fell to below 50 percent for the first time since the elections. And in November approval of the D.A. Alliance was down to 46 percent.

What made last year’s floods more “special” was their great extent (the maps show it accurately) and the damages caused. In August, there were 66 deaths due to floods, and at the end of the year the evaluations showed tha Romania had suffered material damages of around 1.5 billion euros, equivalent to more than 2.1% of the Romanian GDP, according to Amos News.

But this year’s floods indicate that the situation seems to be getting worse. Of the three possible origins of flooding, Romanians are facing two already. The spring snow melt-off, as well as heavy rain, have swollen tributary rivers (this is the case with the floods generated by the rivers Danube, Tisa and Prut). The Danube itself is reaching more and more alarming levels. And rain showers are also ongoing. Weather predictions are pessimistic ; the April 19th forecast called for non-stop rain for the next 48 hours in most regions of Romania, a situation especially inconvenient considering that on the 23rd, Romanians will be celebrating Orthodox Easter.

The effects of the government’s inability to manage the situation for their approval ratings are obvious. If last year they were already pronounced, this year, due to other internal difficulties and the forthcoming report of the European Commission, the floods will probably have an even greater negative effect on the government.

Last year, Romanians almost saw the resignation of the prime minister (he changed his mind at the last moment) ; considering all these simultanoues stresses and the continuing dangerous weather, this year might end having seen a real resignation.

However, the significance of this year’s flooding will probably be greater than in past years, since the arrival of all this water into the Danube Delta will do more than destroy the houses in its way. Although the Western media failed to mention it, in this region there is another latent danger: avian flu. A combination of the two is highly undesirable and the Romanian authorities must prepare themselves for a period of intense work in the field in order to preventing the spread of avian flu, or any other type of disease whose transfer could be aggravated by the deteriorating conditions.

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Paula Ganga studies political science at Romania’s oldest university, Alexandru Ioan Cuza in Iaši, and is currently a Socrates Mobility Student at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Lille, France. Her thesis examines modern Russia’s diplomatic relations with the ex-Soviet states. Paula’s articles on Romanian politics and the role of France and Germany in the EU have been published in the Bucharest political science journal Paralele…Paralele.

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